Leadership & Governance

U. of North Carolina President’s Ouster Comes Amid Political Shift

Gerry Broome, AP Images

The system’s board, now occupied by Republican appointees, forced out Thomas W. Ross after less than five years.
January 16, 2015

When Thomas W. Ross was forced out of his job as president of the University of North Carolina system on Friday, there were few familiar faces remaining on the board that hired him less than five years ago. The university’s Board of Governors has 32 voting members, 29 of whom have been appointed by the legislature since Mr. Ross took office.

The transition of membership on the board has coincided with a political transformation in the state, where Republicans seized control of the legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than a century.

Mr. Ross, a former president of Davidson College, was a state judge who once served as chief of staff for Robin Britt, a Democratic member of Congress.

Mr. Ross, 64, will continue to serve as the university’s president until at least January 3, 2016, and beyond that if it takes longer to seat a successor, the board announced.

In a statement on Friday, the board conceded that it and Mr. Ross had differed on the timeline for his departure. Mr. Ross indicated that he had not expected to leave the job so soon.

The board provided little specific explanation for its decision, but said in a statement that it had "nothing to do with President Ross’s performance or ability to continue in the office."

The vagueness of the board’s rationale invited questions from reporters about whether the decision had been politically motivated. John C. Fennebresque, the board’s chairman, said politics had "absolutely not" been a factor, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Burley B. Mitchell Jr., a former board member who had been appointed before the Republican takeover of the state legislature, said it was not surprising that a board with so many new members would want to make a change in leadership.

"It’s fair to say it wasn’t Tom’s team," Mr. Mitchell said. "My impression was really, from the time they took the board over entirely, that they wanted someone different, which is not in my mind a criticism of Tom Ross at all. It’s just that a new team came in."

W. Marty Kotis III, who was appointed to the board in 2013, was the lone member to vote against the decision to end Mr. Ross’s tenure next year. He said he objected to the "process and timing" of the decision.

Trepidation About What’s Next

At college campuses across North Carolina, professors may have some trepidation about what the new team will look for in the next system president. Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s Republican governor, has publicly stated skepticism about liberal-arts programs that do not show a clear connection to job creation.

"If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it," Mr. McCrory said in a radio interview last year. "But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job."

Most board members at public universities will say that they do not make decisions based on political considerations, but lawmakers tend to appoint people who share their fundamental beliefs about higher education. Ferrel Guillory, a professor of the practice of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the system’s board had become more conservative, just as the state has.

"It’s fair to say that the Board of Governors is increasingly reflecting the priorities of the Republican legislature," said Mr. Guillory, a former editorial-page editor and columnist for the News & Observer.

Mr. Ross’s tenure at North Carolina has coincided with one of the most trying periods in the history of the flagship campus. A scandal involving athletics and academics has dragged on for more than four years, and a damning report released in October demonstrated that the university had failed to previously investigate or acknowledge nearly two decades of widespread cheating at Chapel Hill.

There has been no indication that Mr. Ross’s departure was in any way a fallout of the controversy. On the contrary, some of his supporters said the president had showed a steely resolve during the turmoil.

"Tom had a heck of a lot of things to deal with simultaneously," said Fred N. Eshelman, a former member of the board.

Mr. Eshelman, who described himself as a registered Republican, said he would be surprised if politics were at play in decisions surrounding Mr. Ross’s future at the university.

"When I was on the board, it was my experience that people pretty much checked their political credentials at the door," he said.

Mr. Eshelman, who recently pledged $100-million to Chapel Hill’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, said he was sorry to see Mr. Ross go.

"Tom did a good job navigating very difficult waters," Mr. Eshelman said. "It’s a big loss."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.